Being the Church

Mercy is the litmus test of faith

By Anonymous

Only days before His crucifixion, Jesus gave His disciples this solemn warning:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered in before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep at his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous ones will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink, or a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

And the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me!”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes, and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison, and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and not help you?”

He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
(Matt. 25:31-43).

I have heard some interesting sermons about this passage that make it appear that we’ve earned our ticket to heaven, not through Christ and the cross, but because we gave water to the thirsty, were hospitable to strangers, clothed the naked, were merciful to the sick and the poor and visited prisoners. Presumably, the more of these acts we carry out, the greater will be our salvation. Conversely, if we do not do these things, we will earn ourselves a prominent place in hell. Nothing could be further from the truth!

A good rule of theology is that all of what God states about a particular subject in the Bible is true, not just the portions we like. Here are two of many foundational verses about God’s requirements for salvation: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved” (Rom. 10:9). “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Eph. 2:9).

It is not possible to earn forgiveness of sins by feeding the hungry, helping the sick, clothing the naked or visiting prisoners. So, what was Jesus saying to His disciples in Matthew 25?

A Litmus Test

Jesus was not introducing a new doctrine but giving us a “litmus test” to indicate true belief. Litmus is a chemically treated paper that changes color to indicate acidity. In the same way, acts of mercy are not a way for a person to earn a way into heaven, but evidence that a person has been born again by the Spirit of God. Jesus was saying in this passage that the absence of mercy in someone who openly confesses to be His follower is evidence that that person never received the Spirit of Christ.

At one time or another, we have been one of those people who were all words and no action, and we have met people like them. Are they Christians? Are we? What about the world’s great humanitarians, most of whom do not confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and do not believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead (Rom. 10:9)? Jesus’ statement in Matthew 25 seems at first glance to be a poor litmus test for the absence or the presence of God.

John the Baptist agreed with Jesus: “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, “We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.” That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8).

This last statement takes my breath away, especially since I like to believe that every person who simply calls himself a follower of Jesus is assured a place in heaven. For Jesus, the lack of spiritual fruit, especially the lack of mercy, was evidence enough for God to “sever the roots” and pack a pretender of the faith off to the darkest place in the universe.

This does not mean that our churches need to rush to set up programs that will identify and eliminate the “trees that produce bad fruit.” It does mean that God has given us a clear guide by which to judge our own hearts and our own churches. It may also mean that we need to use this standard more openly when we choose our leaders.

What these litmus tests detect is whether the Spirit of God is present in our lives. When we encounter a Christian who does not demonstrate mercy, we should call it sin and confront him or her gently, humbly, but directly, the way Jesus taught His disciples. The same is true for churches that claim to be Spirit-filled but demonstrate little compassion toward those who are suffering.

Should a humanitarian who demonstrates mercy be considered a follower of Christ? The biblical answer is “no.” If he also confesses with his mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believes in his heart that Jesus rose from the dead, then we should accept him as a fellow believer.

The Merciless Church

The reports from the political violence in Kenya after the disputed presidential election of 2008 are heartbreaking. A friend who was at a mission hospital during the height of the violence wrote the following account:

There are many polite phrases bandied about here that do not hint at the horror of having been burned out of their homes, of being slashed with machetes, of being immolated alive, of having hundreds of rotting corpses in the mortuary which cannot be claimed by their families and tribes because it is not safe to do so.

. . . A week ago the shores of one of the beautiful Rift Valley lakes was the scene of the most horrifying clashes of the tribal war. . . . There was no defense in the fact that you have lived together, worshiped together, worked together or played together. . . .

Eighty percent of Kenyans proclaim themselves Christians. The percentages are relatively equal between the tribes. I can only draw one of two conclusions. One is that Christians are participating in the acts of violence and hatred. The other alternative is that they are being silent—it seems improbable that 80 percent could not squelch the acts of even the most violent 20 percent if they decided to do so.

Where was the Church during these terrible events? There were some wonderfully brave Christians who tried to save their friends, but for the most part, the enormous population of “Christians” in Kenya remained silent, and in too many cases, actually participated in the killing. When they were tested, the fruit of mercy was not evident in their lives.

Where is the Church when a woman in obstructed labor in Africa comes to an openly Christian hospital and is refused an operation until she or her family can find money to pay? As her contractions slowly kill her unborn child, or as she bleeds to death, “Christian” nurses just yards away ignore her suffering and chatter and laugh with each other“I did not make up these incidents. Where is the evidence of the Spirit of God?

Where is the Church when year after year teenage girls are forced to undergo genital mutilation in public ceremonies, and Christians in the community remain silent?
Where are God“s people when a teenage boy is refused treatment by a Christian doctor because the family has no money to pay?

And closer to home, where is the Church when each year a million American unborn babies are destroyed for our convenience, and we shrug our shoulders? Is their blood not on our hands?

In Isaiah 58:7, God cried out for His people to share their food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless, to give clothes to those who need them and not hide from relatives who need help. “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer.”

Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God compared his people to Sodom: “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

If we take Jesus at His word in Matthew 25:31“46, the church that does not reach out with both material help and the gospel to those who suffer is no longer a church He calls His own.

What kind of church is yours? What kind of mercy does it demonstrate? What kind of mercy is exemplified by your life and work?

The clear teaching of Jesus is that where there is no mercy, there is no holiness either.

“Adapted from Christian Mercy: Compassion, Proclamation and Power by D. Thompson, 2013. Used by permission. Available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon.com.

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